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The story of how Johnnie Walker became a $4 billion brand

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Where did the inspiration for Johnnie Walker come from?

A young lad, just 14 years old went for a walk. He went for a walk to help support his family as his father had just died. The year was 1819

The lands that he was born in and grew up on was sold and with the proceeds, he and his mother bought a grocery shop. The name on the door simply said – John Walker. He had just taken his first walk

Back then in Scotland, all grocers sold single malt, but their quality was not great and more importantly, they were not consistent. This young Mr Walker or Johnnie as he was called by all, wasn’t satisfied with the ordinary.

He decided to start blending himself experimenting with various blends and whisky till he got the right taste that he found – satisfactory. He made sure that he only sold Whisky that he himself blended and found it good. Customers not only found it very good but could not get this taste anywhere else.

All you marketing folks, does this ring a familiar bell?

Great product with consistency and differentiation.

Birth of a Great Brand

This young lad named the whisky after him and he quickly grew to be Scotland’s biggest distiller and brand. But the ambition of Johnnie Walker could not be contained either in his grocery shop or only within the geography of Scotland.

His fortunes changed when he displayed a rather aggressive and ambitious move by acquiring the famous Cardhu Distillery. This acquisition and the blends give him the push to move into top gear. His sons Robert and Alexander then took on the mantle and ran with it.

Source:distillery tours

Alexander convinced the ship captains who often docked at Glasgow to carry his bottles in trade to the mainland and other countries. Here came the biggest branding and packaging ideas of all time for JW. He designed the square bottle to prevent breakages, while in transit in the ships and could accommodate more of these square bottles in the same space compared to round bottles.

The bottle labelling is at a precise 24 degrees to give it a distinct look as well ensure the biggest font across the side. He then made a killer move and persuaded the ship captains agents for JW. Now they had every reason to not just transport, but also promote JW across the world. Pure genius. 1860

George and Alexander – II joined the business now.

Launch of Black and Red Label

1909 they launched the Black Label and Red Label and used Tom Browne, a famous cartoonist of that age to give them a design, an icon and imagery to symbolise the legacy and the brand. Over lunch, Tom drew the striding man….on a lunch napkin and thus a legend was born.

A grocer’s brand became a legend and the most preferred liquid nectar in over 120 countries by 1920. By now JW had walked into the hearts of men in most of the countries they were available in and became the must-have in any social occasion. culture and fabric of the changing world’s tapestry and ingrained into the hearts of the connoisseurs.

Johnnie Walker thus became an international symbol and as the world progressed after the Industrial Revolution, they grew to become the biggest whisky brand in the world

A young lad who started his walkway back in 1819 couldn’t have imagined such a success

Rough seas

Johnnie Walker became the most consumed and valuable whisky brand and easily the most awarded

1997-1998: For the first time since inception, JW’s market share dropped. Very strange. In the beginning, even the top dogs in the company were foxed. In the preceding three years, volume sales had fallen by 14 per cent, while the market share was also in a steady decline.

Young gen picked up a taste for Wine, Vodka, other white spirits and cocktails. The legal age for drinking came down and the youngsters quickly adapted to the new drink preferences. Whisky was also considered too fuddy-duddy by the young gen

JW didn’t quite see the new trend of the time and also made some classic communication mistakes - JW had 27 different ad campaigns running across the world. This not only confused the consumers but also revealed the lack of focus from JW

  1. . Whisky seen as an old man’s drink. Youngsters could not connect

  2. · JW was losing brand identity, too much and too varied a communication

  3. · They seemed to be full of themselves. Most awarded brand

  4. · Inward looking, legacy brand

  5. · Brand had lost meaning over a period of time

Then the entire company went on red alert and the immediate focus was to reverse sales fortunes and to consistently develop a global communications strategy that would address changing trends if any and also bring sustained growth. This called for powerful storytelling – internally as well to millions of customers worldwide

Big but not meaningful

The journey towards the solution

The problem statement was clear. In a category where brand preference is key, the Johnnie Walker brand lacked meaning. BBH was roped in to study the problem in detail and also design a powerful strategy and communication that would forge a strong connection with consumers and become more than just a whisky brand

The research findings from BBH further revealed that brands need to have a purpose and all leading brands in the world were able to connect with their consumers by appealing to human values and also revolved around positivity and success.

Whisky advertising has always been about masculine success. Yet, the category's portrayal of success at the time felt obvious, sometimes arrogant, and far removed from human values.

To understand the nature of masculinity at the dawn of the 21st century, BBH commissioned some global research that revealed an emerging trend: to evolved men all around the world, success was no longer only about material wealth or ostentatious displays of status. It was now an internal quality, about becoming a better man, having an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement.

A man was judged a success not by where he was, but where he was going. The most powerful expression of masculine success in the 21st century progressed. BBH sought an interpretation of success that could truly captivate men worldwide. This meant that Johnnie Walker needed to inspire whisky drinkers, in the same way, to change fortunes and also be successful always

From achievement to progress

This spirit of progress had always been at the heart of the Johnnie Walker brand. The burning ambition and hunger to succeed and the pioneering spirit drove the founder and his successors to make this brand universal. In many ways, Tom Brown’s creation of the Striding Man captured some of this essence.


The Striding Man’s symbolism of progress and hunger for the Johnnie Walker family was sought to be replicated and become the singular icon of the JW brand. It symbolised and exhorted whisky drinkers to progress to and success is a journey and not a destination.

"Keep walking" as a tag line was born out of this

Keep walking today is a clearly recognised metaphor for progress. It's an inspirational story for consumers to think of their own journey towards progress

Launching with focus, exploiting with flexibility

"Keep walking" has run in more than 120 countries over eight years, including more than 50 TV executions, 150 print executions, radio ads, websites, sponsorships, internal awards, consumer awards and even a charitable fund. The campaign was managed with strict focus and control; the same creative ran everywhere

Return on investment

From the launch of "Keep walking", Johnnie Walker's sales quickly returned to strong growth and volume sales grew from 10.2 million cases in 1999 to 15.1 million in 2007, resulting in a massive 94 per cent revenue growth to reach $4.56 billion worldwide.

This powerful storytelling worked wonders and gave all their employees much-needed morale boost and a single purpose to march ahead.

To summarise

  • Don’t get into a comfort zone. Always keep evolving. Keep your eyes on changing trends to make yourself “future proof”

  • Just because you have a legacy and have been awarded multiple times, doesn’t mean that success is assured

  • Change the perspective – outside in. Make the narrative better, communication even clearer and if all this comes together in great storytelling, then it will resonate well

  • The genius of Johnnie Walker and his sons in those days. Without a formal business education, they showed great prowess in product differentiation acquisition, package design, distribution, and branding

About the Author

Sundar Kondur is a professional with experience in Brand, Media and Strategy. Co-creating solutions with marketers/advertisers is what keeps him going on a professional front. On a personal front, he is an avid storyteller, lifelong student, prefer the outdoors, loves rock music and is a big foodie. He is currently SVP with The Times of India Group.

1 Comment

Unknown member
Jan 09, 2022

Just gazed at amazing story lines penned down. I resonate now, there is a difference in a story & the journey. A story from selling the own land to conquer the very field of malts is truly remarkable.

Uplifting the flavours, you pretty much blended the context like John.

Great storytelling, Sundar Kondur. Cheers!

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